Virgin Galactic tests SS2 cockpit and considers pilot requirement

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By Rob Coppinger in London

Virgin Galactic operations director Alex Tai and test pilot David Mackay have been flying the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) cockpit simulator at Scaled Composites in California to provide feedback on the pilot interface.

Chief training astronaut Alistair Hoy, meanwhile, is writing the operating manual for the commercial suborbital service.

Consultation is taking place under a technical assistance agreement the UK company negotiated to comply with US arms export regulations. The recently completed SS2 simulator is similar to that for the SpaceShipOne, which Tai first flew before its October 2004 X-Prize flights.

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© Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic test flight programme team (L-R): Steve Johnson, chief pilot; David Mackay, chief test pilot; Alex Tai, director of operations; and Alistair Hoy, chief training pilot.

Tai wants pilots with a military background, but with experience of the safety culture of an airline. He expects six pilots will be involved in each flight. “We’ll have two pilots in [the carrier aircraft] White Knight 2, two pilots on SS2, a pilot in mission control, and probably a chase aircraft,” says Tai, who will fly the first commercial flight.

Starting at one flight a week by 2009, the company could eventually have 30 pilots flying 10 SS2s. It has ordered five SS2s, with an option for seven more, from Scaled Composites/Virgin Group joint-venture The Spaceship Company.

The company has approached the US Federal Aviation Administration and an employment consultant to discuss hiring personnel, says Tai, who adds that Virgin Galactic has had a few NASA pilots apply.

NASA and US Department of Defense personnel could be used as pilots when specialist payloads are flown.